Dirty Santas invade the Internet, but others learn no-fondling at school

John Carlin in Washington reports on the latest grotesqueries and fashionable gifts around the United States this Christmas
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The Independent Online
Would you not feel slightly queasy about plopping your child on to the lap of an unknown man, a stranger you've never set eyes on before? Does it not follow, then, that there is something odd about parents suspending their customary anxieties at this time of year and cheerfully handing their little ones to a man in a false white beard wearing a red tunic over a couple of well-stuffed pillows?

In the US they have woken up to the problem. A school in Michigan is running sensitivity training classes specially tailored for aspirant Father Christmases.

The Charles W Howard Santa Claus School in Michigan conducts intensive three-day courses which cover everything from how to avoid charges of harassment to voice-training and dress etiquette. Students are encouraged to keep off the booze and always, always, to keep a towel handy in case junior becomes over-excited and forgets to retain control of his bladder.

The most solemn lesson taught at the School for Santas may be summed up in two words: no fondling. Santa must be extremely careful about what part of a child's anatomy he lays his hands on and he must be particularly on his guard in the event that he crosses paths with a playful pubescent girl.

Drawing on a history of bitter experiences, the Santa School manual teaches that teen queens who propose pecks on the lips should be sweetly, but firmly, turned down.

Santa fetishists, however, should not despair. In another wonderful example of how modern technology can enrich our lives, girls and, for that matter, grown women and men do now have a channel for their baser Yuletide impulses. Numerous websites have appeared on the Internet this year offering opportunities to send uncensored e-mail messages to the elves, the reindeer and Santa Claus himself at their home in Lapland. Similarly uncensored are the "personalised" replies.

Bolder internauts over the age of 18 may avail themselves of the interactive video services provided by young women who, in exchange for credit card details, will happily perform unspeakable deeds while dressed up in full Santa regalia. Or, of course, the client himself may choose to sport a Santa costume while the female service-provider wears nothing at all.

On-line shopping of a more conventional sort has been quite the rage in the US this year, with total purchases expected to exceed $4bn (pounds 2.4bn), according to American Express. Usually the goods bought on-line, again a simple transaction involving the transmission of credit card information, are quite small, susceptible to speedy express mail delivery. Diana, Princess of Wales dolls have been moving quickly, at $32.95, as have Bonsai trees and small gifts for pets. Winter coats for iguanas have been a favourite for some years but a couple of new items on offer include a Doggy Fart Extinguisher, going for a modest $7, and a battery-operated, remote-controlled toy mouse, a snip at $14.25 for the hours of endless fun it will afford pussy.

But it is out in the meat world, as the cyberfolk call it, that the big money is being spent - the total outlay on Christmas gifts alone will hit an estimated $46bn this year.

Children have been particularly beguiled by Japan's latest contribution to global culture, the virtual reality pet. Another big seller has been the "Sing and Snore Ernie", a doll that yawns and says "I'm so sleepy" when his hand is squeezed, sings "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" and then snores when placed on his back.

But perhaps the most exciting new entry in the retail market this year has been the Singing Christmas Tree. It looks in all respects quite like any other Christmas tree, save for a smiling rubbery face that peers from the undergrowth and, in response to a sharp sound, will lip-sync a medley of well-known carols.

Each rendition concludes with "Thank you very much", uttered in what is supposed to sound like the voice of Elvis Presley. The Singing Christmas Tree, price $39.99, has been so hot in the department stores that the manufacturers in Long Island are reportedly kicking themselves that they did not think to triple their production.

Adults at the high end of the market have been more predictable in their purchases, though, according to retailers, more ostentatious than usual, even by the brash American standards of conspicuous consumption. In apparent response to what has been a bumper year on Wall Street, Cartier outlets in the big cities have struggled to keep up with demand for their Tank Francaise watches, at prices from $2,300 way up to $66,500. The rich, desperate to be seen as such, have been mopping up anything bearing a Gucci, Chanel or Prada label.

The exception to the gaudy rule, curiously, has been Hollywood. Film stars, according to the New York Times, have taken to giving each other rare books. The Disney Corporation and the Creative Artists Agency are in the habit, it turns out, of appeasing difficult stars or welcoming new directors with gifts from a well-stocked antique books shop in west Los Angeles.

Sharon Stone is among those who are said to share a taste for classic manuscripts. The same goes for Brad Pitt, who rewarded the director of a film in which he starred recently with a first edition of James Joyce's Finnegans Wake - a choice that would tend to confirm the suspicion that such books, an expression more than anything else of Tinsel Town's hunger for eternity, are not actually intended to be read.